Twitter is so easy that I keep feeding my quick finds into tweets (I’m @jilltxt on Twitter) instead of writing something more about them for the blog – which is fun and fast, and gets quick and interesting responses, but doesn’t lead to the steadier, more long-term thinking and conversations that I enjoy on blogs. And of course, as Nick Montfort (who just made associate professor and got tenured at MIT: congrats!) pointed out to me last night, Twitter is proprietary – and that does worry me. My blog is on my own server, I use an open source system that I could (if I could be bothered) reprogram or modify at will, and I own my words completely. Twitter is totally corporate and I have no control over it whatsoever. But Twitter is so alive these days. Norwegians in particular seem to be flocking to Twitter en masse, and it’s a great way to keep abreast with what people interested in new media in Norway are thinking about.

I find that Twitter makes me much more geographically located than blogging. Because Twitter is so immediate it’s much more reliant on time. I tweet mostly during office hours here in Norway, and so if you live in New York or California you’re still asleep when I’m tweeting. If you live in Singapore or Australia you’re likely having dinner, putting the kids to bed or out having a drink. So my conversations are with Norwegians and to some extent with Europeans. I do like being more “present” in Norway but I miss the connections with the rest of world. Because blogging is slower, and because archives and links are more important, geography and time zones matter far less – in fact I’ve never really felt that they matter at all. If anything, I enjoy waking up and seeing that other bloggers have been writing while I slept. On Twitter, I’m unlikely to ever see those tweets – I’d have to individually go through their archives, which is a painful process, and unlikely to happen since there’s always so much happening in the live feed.

Twitter does have an open API and it’s probably through all the external services the really interesting things will happen. Of course there are so many of these that it’s hard to keep track! Yesterday’s Norwegian one was, which ranks Norwegian Twitter users according to location, followers and categories. The day before the rage was the #selvtwitterangivelse” where Norwegian users tagged themselves and it was compiled into a tag cloud of Norwegian Twitter users.

The fast conversations can be frustrating – your comments disappear so fast, and if you answer too late because it was nighttime when the conversation was going on, you’re really not participating. But because the investment on each individual tweet is so low, you really do get some fast answers and useful responses from interesting people. For instance, last night I was writing about phatic communication in social media and I used the prompts in Facebook and Twitter as examples.

screenshot of the Facebook prompt

Facebook asks “What’s on your mind” now and I was flaking on what they used to ask – I knew it was different before the latest redesign. So I asked Twitter.

Screenshot of my tweet

Now that was kind of a lazy question, really – I actually found the answer myself by searching for old screenshots: it’s “What are you doing right now?”. But in addition to the kind straight forward answers I also received a more interesting answer, about the difference between Facebook’s prompt and Twitter’s prompt.

Oddly enough, Facebook’s new prompt is closer to the way most people (or most people I follow) seem to actually use Twitter. Here’s the prompt and the little box you type into at Twitter:

I know nothing about gestalt therapy vs psychoanalysis, but the difference between prompts is interesting. It says a lot about what the site’s creators are looking for – what they think we want to do online, what they want us to do with their site. The “What are you doing” prompts encourage all those “boring” things people complain about Twitter and blogs doing: the sandwich you had for lunch, what your cat’s doing, and so on. This is what parodies tend to play on. “What’s on your mind?” is a somewhat more sophisticated question. And at the same time as Facebook switched their prompt they removed the automated “is”, so you now have to type in “is doing something” to make your status message read “Jill Walker Rettberg is doing something.” That allows for different ways of using the status line.

But common to all these prompts is the way they prioritise the phatic function of language. Roman Jakobsen wrote about that decades ago: only one of the several functions of language is to communicate information, and that’s not even really the most important way we use language. The phatic function of language is about confirming connection. What we’re really saying when we answer these prompts is, more or less, this, according to anthropologist Grant McCracken:

1. I exist.
2. I’m ok.
3. You exist.
4. You’re ok.
5. The channel is open.
6. The network exists.
7. The network is active.
8. The network is flowing.

Our use of mobile phones, for instance, is very often phatic – “Hey, how are you doing?” “What are you up to?” A lot of text messages and so on are mostly saying “I’m thinking of you.”

So Twitter and Facebook are not just about sharing information – they’re about connections. Being part of a community, and being aware of it.

Do you know about other prompt questions asked by other social network sites or other communication/publication platforms that would be interesting to compare? Perhaps someone should write a whole paper about writing prompts in communication templates. I bet there are even pre-digital examples – baby journals are prime examples of prompted writing of course, and even diaries come with implicit prompts. I’m not sure whether examples exist of pre-digital prompted writing that’s primarily communicative rather than archival, like a diary, though?

20 thoughts on “tweeting vs blogging – and the prompts of social network sites

  1. Jan Frode Haugseth

    I guess the best non-digital example of a collection of prompts with a phatic function is school diaries, “skoledagbok”. I don’t know if they exist these days, but they sure was very popular amongst young pupils 15-20 years ago.

    I have seen some parish magazines (menighetsblad) which have a “what are you doing now”-page, where people who have moved away tell about their new life.

  2. Bill Wolff

    Thanks for this very interesting post, Jill. As my work in the past looked at prompts in formal documents, the prompts of Facebook Status updates and Twitter have intrigued me for some time. Your discussion of phatic communication, which I know little about, really have me thinking about this in new ways.

    You mention the placement of “is” in the Facebook Status Prompt. Before “is” was editable within the form field, it was actually located outside of the field, which resulted in the fact that people on Facebook could *only* exist in the present progressive: “Bill Wolff is. . . .” Any attempt to put something in the past tense resulted in something like: “Bill Wolff is was having lunch.” The evolution of the prompt is a perfect example of how forcing functions can shape resulting texts. Forcing functions in formal documents theory are parts of documents that force document users to act or react in a certain way (another example of a forcing function is the 140 character limit in Twitter). They tend to have little to no flexibility. The status update prompt in Facebook evolved to be less restrictive and, as a result, forced users less and less over time. Now that Facebook status updates can be more than 140 characters, it has become even more flexible.

    There is much more to say, but I have to get off to campus (as I write this I am more in mind with you that an article really needs to written about this topic). If you are interested in reading a bit more about prompts and formal documents theory, see Bowker and Star’s Sorting Things Out; work on medical forms by Marc Berg and Berg and Bowker; and I have an article coming out in TCQ that discusses the cognitive properties of prompts in online grant proposal forms.

    PS. Please say Hi to Scott for me—we went to grad school in Cincinnati together—and last year played quite a bit of Scrabble on Facebook. Can’t do that no more. . . .

  3. Karianne A. Aam

    RT @Sonitusjill/txt: tweeting vs blogging – and the prompts of social network sites

  4. Karianne A. Aam

    RT @Sonitus @jilltxt jill/txt: tweeting vs blogging – and the prompts of social network sites

  5. Alan Levine

    I fail to follow the “proprietary=bad” logic line; my refridgerator is but it does a fine job of keeping my food cold and I see no value in being able to hack it. Plus I really am not invested in preserving old tweets (neither is Twitter, eventually the do evaporate). The value of Twitter is the social presence there more than the platform itself; if not the case let’s gather in Jaiku or Pownce or …

    Oh if there is a desire to “save the tweets” one option is running SweetCron on your own server as it saves locally thebits of your stream it monitors.

    While the differences in the prompt are interesting, do they really influence what goes into the box? At some point of familiarity they disappear; a majority of my own tweets are not in response to the question and we seem to find a mode that fits us by sheer choice or perhaps some assimilation if those we follow.

    I have always liked the concept Clive Thompson described in Wired a few clicks back on Twitter as “social proprioception”.

    And it all seems a moving target!

  6. Ellen

    Well, it’s in an entirely different context (the pedagogical) but one of the mainstays of foreign and second language learning is the dialog. In the move from grammar/translation in the 1950s to more communicative models, it was seen as revolutionary to switch from asking the students to memorize set dialog pieces to asking them to work with dialog prompts, and even simply visual prompts in order to produce more “authentic” language communication.

    One thing I find amusing about my friends’ use of the Fb prompts is the tendency to play with verb tenses and conjugations in English. Some choose to write about themselves in the third person (i.e. “Lynn wishes she had food in her office”) and some produce an at times amusingly grandiose or literary tone by using the simple present (i.e. “David grades papers” instead of “David is grading papers”–not a good example, but some are quite funny).

    It strikes me that the prompts encourage wit and a consciously literary tone. It doesn’t take much effort to change a simple statement about what you’re doing into an anecdote or miniature narrative.

  7. Yasha Sekhavat

    [tweeting vs blogging – and the prompts of social network sites]

  8. P-A Lalonde

    RT @Yashou: tweeting vs blogging | Why blogging is international and Tweeting is local.

  9. Patrick Glinski

    Great article on the prompts of social networking sites.

  10. Jill Walker Rettberg

    Oh, what great comments, thanks! Bill, great to “meet” you – and how serendipitous that you’ve been working on something so related to this. Does it relate much to this kind of online prompt do you think? Scott says hi back and asks whether you “figured it out” in your article on prompts in grant proposals and can now share the knowledge of how to get those grants.

    I guess thinking about it writing prompts are very common, especially in pedagogy, as Ellen points out, and of course in forms. I agree that you become blind to them on Twitter and Facebook – I don’t consciously see the prompts anymore. But I’m sure they’re important in how new users figure out how to use a site -and so they affect the ways we perceive and develop and play with the norms of communication in those places.

  11. Rhodri ap Dyfrig

    Interesting thoughts on Twitter, Facebook and phatic communication (@jilltxt)

  12. Steve Greer

    RT @Nwdls: Interesting thoughts on Twitter, Facebook and phatic communication (@jilltxt)

  13. Linn

    Ragnar Tornquist had an interesting analogy about how Twitter was keeping him from blogging.

    Twitter: a byte sized alternative, requiring significantly less thought and investment on my part, and consequently being significantly less fulfilling for you – like McDonaldís instead of wholesome home cooking.

    Thought it deserved to be shared. .)

    I’m noticing that I’m using twitter as a link dump. “This is interesting – I want to share it – but I don’t want to go into a whole analysing rant about it on my blog – Thank you twitter!”

  14. jansegers

    tweeting vs blogging – and the prompts of social network sites –

  15. William Patrick Wend

    Reading: @jilltxt’s post about tweeting v blogging I think I might make a similar weblog post soon…

  16. Peter Ortiz

    I’m pretty sure @ean2007 has never read this.

  17. […] RT @Nwdls: Interesting thoughts on Twitter, Facebook and phatic communication (@jilltxt) # […]

  18. jeff watson » A New Poetics

    […] in Ogden, C.K. and Richards, I.A., The Meaning of Meaning. New York: Harvest Books, 1923.313 [↩]Ibid., 316 [↩]Ibid. [↩]Ibid.[↩] […]

  19. […] One of the reasons I have been pretty quiet in recent months is that I am writing a lot more on Twitter (wpwend42) these days. As Jill Walker-Rettberg notes, it is much easier to dump a series of links (what used to be posted here as “weekend reading” or “weekly reader”) and get instant feedback and discussion from peers and friends. I agree with Jill that this does not offer more long-term discussion, like she gets on a lot of posts, but this weblog doesn’t get a lot of traffic so that doesn’t bother me too much. […]

  20. P?•logget/avlogget « KataMaren

    […] Jeg har ikke sett tidsaspektet blitt problematisert noe sted enn?•, selv om Jill er inne p?• det. Det er et enormt tempo, en stri elv som bare renner og renner forbi. Det kunne v?¶re fristende ?• snu seg vekk og la den renne avg?•rde for seg selv. Men den muligheten har p?• en m?•te passert n?• for min del. Det handler om ?• f??lge med, i alle fall n?•r jeg kan. Kanskje en kan bruke begrepet informasjonsgap som det ble snakket s?• ivrig om en periode, og se om gapet kanskje like gjerne ang?•r p?•logget/avlogget? from → medier ← Premie Kunst p?• tur → 4 kommentarer leave one → […]

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